We live in a region where there are fewer non-signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees than there are signatories. This is in a region that hosts the highest number of refugees and asylum seekers in the world, if we include Central and South Asia into our data. Australia has one of the most generous annual humanitarian intake quotas. Yet, we have little legitimacy in the region on this issue. Why? Because we exhibit desperation, fear and narrow mindedness towards the asylum situation that erodes our ability to handle unauthorised boat arrivals, let alone lead a regional intake scheme. Recently, former BBC Correspondent for Australia Nick Bryant noted that the comparatively small number of boat arrivals on Australia’s shores makes no news in Europe – but our exaggerated reactions do. Compared to ‘unauthorised’ arrivals in Europe (269,900 asylum claims in 2010), our number is so small (8,250 claimed in 2010) that it is the reaction and not the problem that makes the news in the rest of the world. Commentary is similar in Asia, which hosts a high number of refugees and associated populations of concern. The almost hysterical response to asylum seekers in Australia leaves our diplomats, aid workers and immigration staff, charged with building regional cooperation on the issue, with no cards to play. These bureaucrats cannot build trusting relations with partners when our politics is so toxic.
We ooze desperation. Time for a rethink. First, there needs to be a real effort by both government and opposition to reach bipartisan agreement on this issue. Asylum policy has become a ‘plague on both their houses’. The ‘Pacific Solution’ cost $1,830 per day compared to a daily cost of $238 to process people on mainland Australia. The ‘Malaysia solution’ had similar financial costs, and forced the government to pay a high political price, both domestically and in the region.
Australia was most effective in responding to the Indochinese refugee crisis in the 1970s and 1980s when its politicians accepted their humanitarian obligations as well as Australia’s intake limits. If both Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott really want to solve this issue, they need to do it together. If they can’t or don’t want to, other people in their respective parties should take the lead. The lack of bipartisan commitment damages us internationally and domestically. The dispute plays out overseas against our interests – we look weak, uncompassionate, inefficient and indecisive.
Domestically, it has a negative effect too. It polarises society on an issue when we actually should have a proud united position given the success of our humanitarian intake scheme. Our debates focus on a relatively small issue (i.e. the number of boat arrivals which even at its peak is small compared to the number of unauthorised plane arrivals). Political polarisation on this issue also affects the government’s capacity to process claims in a timely fashion. There are no votes in allocating more resources to ASIO to expedite security clearances, for more immigration staff to process and file claims, for housing asylum seekers to ensure some modicum of privacy and decency. But if politics is going to engage on this then it should be about these substantive issues – investment in these areas is more productive in solving the long term problem of how to process people promptly and humanely than any expense on offshore processing schemes that will only temporarily accommodate people we often end up accepting as refugees.
Immigration officials, security analysts and police charged to watch over these situations are doing so with despair. They know why the riots are occurring in detention centres, why people are desperate to arrive in Australia and start new lives. Those working in the area plea for a bipartisan solution and investment in their work onshore.
Second, as the tragic capsize of a boat carrying 200 asylum seekers between Christmas Island and Indonesia late last week reveals, regional cooperation is vital. The very existence of the refugee is an international phenomenon that requires collective solutions. Refugees flee because their life depends upon leaving their home. They flee where they can – this doesn’t mean they are safe after fleeing, that their new locale can sustain life and livelihood, and that they don’t have the right to seek permanent refuge elsewhere (if they have sought refuge, up to this point, in countries that are not signatories to the 1951 Convention). Australia signed the 1951 Convention because we believed in it – we were the important signatory state that brought the Convention into force in 1954. We committed to an annual humanitarian intake scheme because of our migrant history and witness the wonderful benefits that refugees after World War II brought to our society. We took part in the 1989 Comprehensive Plan for Action to resolve the enormous Indochinese refugee crisis with a regional plan that was implemented successfully – albeit not perfectly – across the Asian region with the support of signatory and non-signatory states to the 1951 Convention and with the support of the UNHCR. Our standing in the region should be strong with this history. Alas, our domestic behaviour has spent all our international kudos. Instead of delivering another comprehensive regional plan that engages our region in a long-term solution, we seek short-term defensive strategies that fail politically across the region.
Most importantly, the lack of bipartisanship leads to a lack unity as a nation on this issue. Such unity is essential if we want to play with strength regionally and internationally. When we do not have political cooperation, then those we task with seeking cooperative regional solutions – our DFAT, AusAID and AFP staff – struggle to gain regional support because they simply have no firm foundations to rely upon in making commitments to their counterparts. History tells us Australia can achieve positive international cooperation on this issue when we get our domestic house in order. Our bureaucrats are being dealt a bad hand when they go into our region. UNHCR is right to argue that the regional cooperative framework is core to solving the people smuggling issue and the wider problem of prolonged detention in asylum camps around the region.
Australia needs to restore its credibility on this crisis. We have to be honest domestically in terms of what we can do. This requires a cooperative political solution from both major political parties and it is time both parties act with leadership on this. In Australia’s case, solving the refugee crisis starts at home.
Dr Sara Davies, Human Protection Hub, Griffith University